Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The House of Sharing : Women's Rights = Human Rights

"We must record these things that were forced upon us." -Kim Hak Soon Halmoni

"Comfort Women" is a euphemism used to describe women who were kidnapped or sold by their families to be used as sexual slaves in Japanese brothels during WWII. Although the vast majority were from Korea, women were also used in the brothels from China, Japan and the rest of South East Asia. "Comfort stations" were found all over Japanese occupied Asia, and although the number of women involved in the network of comfort stations is debated by historians, some scholars believe that 410 000 women's lives were ruined by this barbaric system.

"Comfort women" had a very hard life while living in the brothels of Japanese occupied Asia, and life was no cake walk when the war finally ended for those who survived either. Only an estimated 25% of "comfort women" survived, and of those who did the majority were never able to have children. They were often seen as a source of shame for their families, and due to the young age at which many of them had been forced into service many of them spoke neither their mother tongue, nor the language of the country where they were found very well, nor could they say where they had come from.

The House of Sharing is a safe house for former Korean “Comfort Women.” It is located about an hour from Seoul and serves as both a place for the former "comfort women" -- who prefer to be called Halmoni (an affectionate and respectful term for "grandmother")-- to live out there days, and a museum, where people can go to learn about the Halmoni and their lives. As difficult as it is to remember the past, and also to face present day criticism from people who don't believe they are telling the truth, the Halmoni believe that their stories must be shared, to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

When you enter the house of sharing, you are greeted by two images on opposing walls. The first (above) represents the dreams of the Halmoni, many of which were stolen from them during their time in sexual slavery. Congruent with the time in which they were born, their greatest wishes revolved around fertility, health, a husband and a family. One of the greatest regrets of the Halmoni today, is that either through the shame of what they underwent, or barrenness caused by their daily torture and forced abortions, most were unable to have children. Its a regret they will carry with them to their graves.

The second image, which is to your right when you approach the House of Sharing, represents what they actually got, in lieu of fulfilled dreams. You can see how the woman cries and a tear falls as the bayonets of the soldiers' guns pierce her skin, and a bird drops dead from her left hand. The stark contrast between the two images, is a reflection of the loss that each of the Halmoni feel each day as they continue on living their lives, in spite of these atrocities that took away the things that many people live for.

The Halmoni today express themselves through painting. They paint the things that they saw, and they paint their feelings. Here a Japanese soldier has arrived at a house to demand the daughters of this house be handed over.

This picture was painted by one woman, to depict the first time she was raped and her innocence taken.

The surviving Halmoni of Korea, of whom eight currently live at the House of Sharing, demonstrate outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday to petition the Japanese government to accept responsibility for the warm crimes it committed against South Ease Asian women during WWII. They haven't missed a Wednesday since they started, and for them I have the greatest amount of respect. I'm not sure that I could survive what they have, live to tell about and then go on reliving those terrible memories for the benefit of others, but they do. They have that grit and determination, and I hope that they get what their looking for one by one they slip away into a better place, and there is no one left for the Japanese government to apologize to.

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